By any conventional yardstick, Singapore is one of the smartest nations around. It frequently tops or is near the top of global rankings from the World Economic Forum and others. And almost every adult here has a smartphone, or two.
Yet, if you ask how well technology is adopted by small and medium businesses (SMBs), which employ most of the people in the country, you’ll often get a quizzical look.
SMBs are notoriously slow to take up some of the most common technologies, from fibre broadband to cloud-based accounting software. Much of this comes from a mindset that technology is a cost.
You can detect a similar attitude among citizens, when you ask them about smart nation projects now being rolled out across Singapore.
Robots to help clean hawker centres? Fancy things to do a simple job that a human can do better. A new way to pay with your mobile phone? What’s wrong with cash, credit cards and Internet banking?
When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke up about the need to push for more cashless payments here last night, comparing how China has moved ahead in this area, he may have left some scratching their heads.
For many citizens, the idea of a smart nation is a vague, hazy one. It is a vision of a future where everything is connected and life is supposed to be dramatically improved.
Unlike, say, a discount for medical checkups, which PM Lee also announced at his National Day Rally speech, it’s not always easy to see the benefits, or know that something was made possible because of a smart nation project.
Some are more obvious, such as the move towards a coupon-less parking system. No more fearing a “summon auntie” leaving a ticket on your windscreen come October, when you can pay via an app.
Other projects, however, take a longer time. The national digital ID system is one example. When it goes up in three years’ time, it would enable a more secure way to identify oneself online and transact with both the government and businesses easily.
And yet others will be transparent to users. The MyInfo service, announced last year, now lets citizens automatically fill in personal data for various government agencies, say, when applying for public housing. That makes life easier but is not something that gets the wow factor.
Indeed, any success for smart nation projects will have to be assessed over time. Much of it will be gradual, not an instantaneous improvement in a citizen’s everyday life.
This makes success hard to measure. Unsurprisingly, there have been rumblings about the effort thus far. The prime minister himself weighed in earlier this year, asking for some projects to be sped up.
Which means buy-in is even more important. It is time for a ground-up approach, rather than a top-down one where the government looks for problems for a technology to solve. Involve citizens early instead, as I argued earlier this year.
A smart nation has to be first about the people, not the technology. It needs problem solving, listening to feedback and a change in direction when things don’t work.
We can look to emulate others, such as Estonia, which has a digital ID system. Or envy the digital payment systems that have flourished in China.
But would they make sense to people here? How do we make them work here? You can only have a smart nation if people are benefiting from the technology. Above all, its success will depend on how it has improved everyday life.